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This the third post of my Ableist Trope of the Week Series. It has been polished, updated, and expanded in “Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability” which has been published on the Mythcreants blog.

Tropes are conventions (or repeated patterns) used in storytelling. They can include themes and plot devices. Underdog characters triumphing after dedicated training is an example of a trope, as is goodness being associated with physical beauty, and villains revealing their secret plans to heroes they have just captured.

Some tropes reinforce oppressive messages, and in this series I will be going through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. Because knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do, I will end each post with suggestions for ways to fix things.

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability from my Guidelines for Game Masters page.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.


Cosmetic Disability

Another common pattern happens when a disabled character gains magic or technology that gives them the same abilities as an able-bodied person. A classic example of this is Luke Skywalker’s bio-mechanical hand in Star Wars. And just as happened for Luke, in this pattern once a character gains their magic or technology, their disability no longer has a significant impact on their life. At its extreme, this pattern can result in disability being treated as a cosmetic choice that has no impact on the story, where a character is given magical or mechanical body parts just to make them look more hard core.

The biggest problem with this pattern is that these characters fail to represent the lived experiences of actual people with disabilities. In the real world, disability impacts a person’s daily life in large and small ways. People with disabilities encounter accessibility barriers, such as buildings that are inaccessible to wheelchairs. We have to make trade offs, such as medications with unpleasant side effects. And many of us have to carefully manage our physical and mental resources, such as someone with limited energy choosing not to run errands so that they able to prepare their dinner.

I also want to point out that having a character’s magic or technology be focused on “making up for” their disability places a limitation on the abilities of disabled characters that able-bodied characters don’t have. It sends the message that disabled people are incapable of accomplishing things without fictional powers, that disability is a terrible thing that defines the entire life of a character, and that becoming able-bodied is an essential goal in every disabled person’s life.

What to do instead:

The challenge here is finding a balance where disability affects the life of the character without overshadowing everything else. If magic or technology is available to the character, it makes sense for them to use it to address their access needs. There is nothing wrong with a character having a prosthetic or assistive device. The way to make these feel real, rather than just be a way to turn a disable character into an able-bodied character, is to make it clear what the device can and can’t do. What are its benefits and limitations? Does it have any side effects? How about hidden costs? Does it require maintenance or charging? Can the character use it constantly, or do they need to remove it at times?

The other big thing is to not make disability into the focus of the character’s powers and abilities. In a story where most characters don’t have extraordinary abilities, don’t give a character a superpower just to make up for the fact that they are disabled. Disabled characters don’t need special powers to accomplish their goals or to give them value. In stories that are about characters having extraordinary abilities, don’t choose an ability for your character that is designed to perfectly make up for their disability. Instead give them an interesting ability that fits the story or their personality.

Once the character has their special ability, then it is time to figure out how the character addresses their access needs. Maybe they can use their power in a clever way to assist themselves, or maybe they get what they need through ordinary abilities and training. Real blind people can use sonar to perceive the world and real paraplegic people can use their strength to get their wheelchairs up stairs. Research what real people can do and don’t assume that every obstacle a disabled person encounters needs be addressed in a fictional way through special powers.


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